September 9, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
There’s a ray of hope emanating from Washington about foster care. The issue of reforming foster care is not yet before Congress as a specific bill, but apparently there’s substantial agreement among office holders about what a bill should look like. More importantly, it seems the senators and congressional representatives have been listening to the right people about how to reform foster care. Read about it here (Washington Post, 8/31/15).
As is so often the case, large quantities of federal money have distorted the process by which families are evaluated and decisions made about whether children should remain with their parents or not. Put simply, federal dollars encourage states to take kids from their parents, so, unsurprisingly, they do. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see yet another article about parents threatened with the loss of their children for the most trivial “reasons.”
The Meitivs in Silver Spring, Maryland are one of the most prominent recent examples, but far from the only ones. Did a 13 year old boy come home from school before his parents arrived from work? He spent about 90 minutes outside his house shooting hoops in perfect safety. But never mind that he wasn’t hurt or even in danger, child welfare officials took him temporarily into care anyway. Did a California couple follow their doctor’s advice about medical treatment for their infant son that differed from doctors’ of a nearby hospital? The police barged into the couple’s house without a warrant and spirited the baby away.
I could go on indefinitely, but suffice it to say that, if CPS agencies weren’t receiving money from Washington for every child taken into foster care, far fewer would be. Indeed, as I’ve reported before, at least one former state senator from North Dakota admitted as much publicly.
So it’s excellent news that, if the talked-about reforms actually come to pass, states will be able to use federal funds for interventions into family life that don’t involve foster care. That’s what veteran child welfare caseworker and manager Molly McGrath Tierney called for in her TEDx talk I’ve referred to before. Many parents are less than what we’d like them to be, but not beyond hope. Often what constitutes “abuse or neglect” is little more than ignorance about good parenting practices or about resources that are available to help.
The federal government has long chipped in for foster care for children whose parents are abusing or neglecting them. But some advocates for children say the money would be better spent helping children's biological parents take care of them properly.
Depending on the family, the state could pay for psychotherapy or treatment for a parent's alcoholism or addiction to drugs. Some new mothers need a nurse to talk to them about how to discipline their children without beating them, while others might just need a washer and dryer for the apartment so the kids can go to school in clean clothes.
The article’s writer seems to be short on information about children’s outcomes in foster care. Max Ehrenfreund claims that “little data on children who grow up in foster care is available,” but in fact, a great deal is. And what it shows us isn’t good. The mere fact of being taken from parents is traumatic for most kids. And spending long periods of time with adults who likely care far less about them than their parents and, in any case, are doing it for the money, is often worse for the children than living with even moderately abusive parents. The range of deficits foster children exhibit is broad and of course, come age 18, they’re on their own.
That’s a recipe for the type of disaster life in foster care often turns out to be for kids.
We’ve long known therefore, that kids should be kept with their parents if at all possible, but financial incentives provided by Washington militate against doing so. If new legislation passes as seems possible, federal money will be spent keeping families together and providing needed services.
That’s already been happening to an extent. States are already able to apply for waivers to test out new and innovative programs.
Dozens of states already have waivers from the federal government allowing them to use money earmarked for foster care for other things. State officials say these experiments have been promising, and research suggests that in many cases, the benefits far outweigh the costs. A study found that one therapy program in the state of Washington, for example avoided tens of thousands of dollars in costs to the criminal justice system and victims of crimes that foster-care children would likely have committed if they hadn't participated.
That’s something I’ve been harping on for years now. Foster care isn’t free. In fact, keeping a child in foster care is one of the most expensive things a state can do toward keeping it safe. That money could better pay for a range of in-home services that would be more effective and far less traumatic for the children than foster care. Plus, since domestic violence and child abuse each have a generational component, teaching parents how to discipline their kids without abusing them might just be passed down from parent to child, saving injury, heartache, dysfunction and money in the long run.
All of that is good news. What’s not good news is the entire absence of any mention of fathers. As we’ve known since at least 2006 when an Urban Institute study came out, child welfare authorities routinely ignore Dad as a possible placement for children when they’re taken from an abusive or neglectful mother. In well over 50% of the cases studied, no effort was made to contact fathers to evaluate them for fitness to care for their children.
That preference on the part of CPS for foster care over father care is not only traumatic for children, it’s expensive. States pay fathers nothing to care for their children, but a lot to foster parents.
Not only that, but it’s a violation of fathers’ civil rights as the U.S. Ninth Circuit ruled in 2008. Fathers have rights to their children and bypassing them in order to place children in foster care violates those rights.
But I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the practice has abated. So, among all this reform of foster care, with its emphasis on families, where’s the awareness of the need to include fathers in the process when, inevitably, a child needs to be taken from Mom?
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